Tag Archives: Southern Africa

What counts as ‘first contact’? An example from Papua New Guinea

What does it mean for a group to be in ‘contact’ with the ‘outside world’? Can there ever be a ‘first contact’ between peoples? Is anyone truly ‘isolated’? I’d like to try to answer these questions by providing an example from my own area of expertise, Ipili speaking people from Porgera district, Papua New Guinea (I’m traveling and don’t have my library so the facts will have to be from memory — sorry if I get some of them wrong). Porgera is in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, which is well-known for its famous first contact in 1933 when Australian explorers walked over a mountain ridge thinking they would discover a rugged central mountain range with a few scattered populations, if anything. Instead they found huge flat valleys with a population of roughly 1 million people. They had a camera and you can watch the footage or read the excellent book about this even called First Contact and the documentary that accompanies it, or even the flickr stream (for more details you can see the syllabus of my course on first contact which is not the most recent version but there you go). If we want to talk about first contact, the PNG highlands is the perfect example — it is both a dramatic moment of culture contact and exhaustively documented.

My own area of expertise is Porgera District, which is far west of the original 1933 contact took place. The Porgera first contact took place in 1938-39, when an exploratory patrol led by Jim Taylor and James Black entered the valley (Bill Gammage has written Sky Travellers, a book about this patrol. It is my favorite book about Papua New Guinea. Superb. Also hard to find.) Pretty much everyone agrees this was Porgera’s ‘first contact’ and marked the beginning of Australian control of the valley, the first time people saw metal or cloth, and so forth. So if you ask me, Porgera had first contact 1938-39.

But was it?
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Suffering Ch. 5: reading military through colonial anthropology

I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to tie together Donald Moore’s book with the recent spate of talk here about sports and the military. No go on the former so far, but I think the book is a good case for thinking about the history of anthropological knowledge and its contribution to geo-political affairs. Comparison with Iraq is obviously apposite– why is Mugabe’s Zimbabwe not the same kind of threat as Saddam’s Iraq, barring the obvious issue of oil? Why is the region considered (relatively, and by the US and EU) stable despite the ravages of AIDS, the super out-of-control inflation or the century-long (and now tit-for-tat) history of racialized dispossession at the center of Moore’s book? But more relevant is the question of how anthropological knowledge has been used in both governance and wartime in the history of Africa. The “colonial” card is one often played in anthropology (and frequently here on SM), but rarely, I think, carefully examined. For my money, Chapter 5 of Moore’s book is one of the few places I’ve seen an anthropologist take really seriously the complicated uses of anthropological knowledge in a colonial and post-colonial setting, and I think it merits a comparison with the question of what, for instance, people like Montgomery McFate, Laura McNamara, or Marcus Griffin are involved in with respect to Iraq are involved in with respect to the use of anthropological knowledge within the government today (NOTE: I didn’t mean to lump all three of these folks together as people working in or on Iraq… only as three different kinds of anthropologists working with or on the miltary or defense. Laura McNamara works for th DOE and has studied defense analysts, but has nothing whatsoever to do with HTS or the DoD.) .
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The Suffering Continues, Chs. 2 and 3

Mea Culpa for the delay since our last post on Donald Moore’s book.
I’ve been moving, getting sick, getting my family sick, destroying my
laptop (on which last week’s 2/3rd written post still exists on an
unreachable, powersurged nirvana of a hard drive in an unknown Apple
“depot” somewhere in America), and then getting stung by a wasp in my
left hand… in short, I was doing the suffering this week. But I’m
ready to return the job to Moore now, so on to chapters 2 and 3.
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Reading Circle Supplements: crazy inflation and f*ed up laws.

For those of you who haven’t yet picked up, or received, your copy of Suffering for Territory, here’s some sources for learning about current affairs in Zimbabwe. Inflation is currently somewhere around 4500%. I think that basically means that the price goes up before you can dig for change in your pocket. Or would that be your wheelbarrow of cash. The US has apparently offered food aid. The Times of London has an article about starvation and the “silent genocide” with the startling claim that no one seems to know what the population of Zimbabwe is anymore. Also (via boingboing) a series of Internet-related laws allowing monitoring of all phone and data traffic.

A few good blogs (1| 2| 3) seem to be out there as well… please post others if you know of them.

Summer Reading Circle: Introduction to Suffering

“I elaborate entanglements with their gnarly knots that defy orderly undoing.” (Donald Moore, Suffering for Territory, p. 9)

The first thing I noticed about Donald Moore’s Suffering for Territory is that the preface and the flap-copy both describe events in Zimbabwe since 2000– the globally significant displacement of white landowners by the Mugabe government– but the research conducted in the book occurred in the early 1990s. At first sight this looks like a way to sell the book (it’s not out of date, it’s background!), but in reality I think there is something much more complex about this book that isn’t articulated until one gets well into the intro: that this is a book for understanding why the events of the last few years make sense. Whereas the news media and the fast-paced world of journalism are excellent at covering and tracking unfolding events, especially in places with dramatic political conditions like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, ethnography is after something that journalists (insofar as they are not really participating in what they observe) cannot articulate.

Unfortunately, that same sense-making skill that anthropologists develop is also the reason why it is so often hard for people (including authors themselves) to say what an ethnography is “about.” Certainly Donald Moore’s book is “about” Zimbabwe, and in particular, a little district in the north east called Kaerezi, and in particular a little village in that district. But to relegate the book to being merely about this village would miss the fact that it is actually (also?) about how power, sovereignty and discipline make space and place look, and happen, the way they do. But to say that it is merely a theorization of governmentality would miss the fact that it (also?) is about race, colonialism, African histories of liberation, resistance, genocide and suffering… and so on.

Fortunately for Moore, and for me, one of the perquisites of anthropology is that one can address novice and expert at the same time. I, for instance, had to look at a map to know where Zimbabwe is exactly, so I am very much a novice when it comes to one thing the book is about. But when it comes to the parade of familiar theorists (Foucault, Gramsci, Dolce and Gabanna, Appadurai, Lefbvre, James C. Scott, Chakrabarty, etc), I’m an expert whose own classes, syllabi and work have struggled to makes sense of things like governmentality, sovereignty, assemblages, articulations, situated ethnographies, space and place. The real challenge, for Moore’s book, is to integrate novice and expert– to make sense of something that is inevitably highly specific and particular, in terms that make it make sense at a global and historical level (and not only in terms of “governmentality”, but generally, as an ethnographic explanation of a situation, not just a particular place or set of people).

Of course, if you are looking for that elusive thing called fieldwork or ethnography (you know what I’m talking about, that thing that you can’t name but that when it is missing makes people say “where’s the ethnography”) then Moore’s book promises to be as rich a monograph of a specific locale as one could want: during fieldwork, Moore was detained by government officials at the airport, subjected to ruthless and pointless bureaucracy, had successive meetings with people in power overseeing his ability to work, was the subject of a public meeting deciding his fate, lived in a tent in the village, built his own mud and wattle hut, worked the fields, visited the archives, and spent on the order of ten years thinking through the experience. If this isn’t ethnography, then I’d be hard-pressed to say what is. More important however, might be trying to precisely articulate what this ethnography does that others (or other accounts that do not employ this kind of fieldwork) cannot do.

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Summer Suffering with Donald S. Moore

Ha Ha Harare here we come! This summer’s reading circle choice is Donald S. Moore’s Suffering for Territory: Race, Place, and Power in Zimbabwe.

Moore Suffering for Sovereignty

There are really a wealth of interesting anthropology books out there right now, so it was hard to figure out what to read. Sandra Bamford’s books is a very close second, and I’m sure it will re-surface here in the future, but given that it just came out (my library doesn’t yet have a copy), it might be hard for people to find. Similarly Harry West’s recent book is also very new, and seeing as how Kupilikula was suggested last year and this year, somewhere along the line it too will return. But in the end, Moore has risen to the top of the list. We’re hoping it will draw in people in geography, politics, maybe legal or environmental studies, so tell all your cool friends in the other disciplines too.

The book is substantial, 400 pages, 3 sections. I will try to post something by July 15th on the introduction, and then shoot for 1-2 chapters per week until mid-late August. I hope all the Savage Minds will chime in, and if anyone else wants to write anything substantial about a section of the book, I will happily post it here on your behalf. Let the suffering begin!

Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

I don’t normally cross-post here from my research blog, but I thought my recent post on female genital cutting (FGC) might interest some of Savage Minds’ readers. Drawing on anthropological research and first-hand testimony reported across the literature, I’ve tried to counter a lot of the ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism that characterizes anti-FGC arguments, especially in the mainstream. This is not an argument for FGC, by any means, but rather, in the spirit of Geertz, “anti-anti-FGC”.

Stone-aged and primitive are what you call people when you want their land

Last week, Baroness Lady Tonge of Kew brought up the bushmen of the Kalahari in the British House of Lords:

She suggested they were trying to “stay in the stone age”, described their technology as “primitive” and accused them of “holding the government of Botswana to ransom” by resisting eviction from their ancestral lands. How did she know? In 2002 she had spent half a day as part of a parliamentary delegation visiting one of the resettlement camps into which the bushmen have been forced. Her guides were officials in the Botswanan government.

Interestingly, the trip was funded by a company which owns “the rights to mine diamonds in the bushmen’s land in the Kalahari”!

The linked Guardian article by George Monbiot points out some other examples of people being called “stone-aged” when their land looked attractive.

John F Kennedy approved the annexation of West Papua by the Indonesian government with the words: “Those Papuans of yours are some seven hundred thousand and living in the stone age.” Stone-aged and primitive are what you call people when you want their land.

The animal theme comes up quite often too. “How can you have a stone-age creature continue to exist in the age of computers?” asked the man who is now Botswana’s president, Festus Mogae. “If the bushmen want to survive, they must change, otherwise, like the dodo, they will perish.” The minister for local government, Margaret Nasha, was more specific. “You know the issue of Basarwa [the bushmen]?” she asked in 2002. “Sometimes I equate it to the elephants. We once had the same problem when we wanted to cull the elephants and people said no.”

See earlier.

Bushman Family Wins Court Victory

From B-Log, this update to the Bushman story mentioned here earlier:

The Botswana High Court ruled on Friday 28 October that the government must allow Bushman Amogolang Segootsane and his family to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It must also return his goats to him and allow him to bring water into the reserve.

Bushmen expelled from Homeland

Anyone whose been through an introductory anthropology course over the past thirty years is likely to have come across at least a passing mention to the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Well, according to today’s Washington Post there are no more Bushmen in Botswana’s Kalahari Game Reserve.

All but a few of the Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve have been forcibly removed from their homes in recent days in what spokesmen for the affected communities said is a final push by the government to end human habitation there after tens of thousands of years.

The First People of the Kalahari, an activist group in Botswana, said that Bushmen villages had been cut off from their main sources of food and water and that outsiders had been prohibited from entering to provide relief for the past six weeks.

The group said a heavy contingent of police, military and park rangers trucked out about 40 people — most of the remaining residents — at gunpoint on Friday and Saturday. The stragglers face constant harassment, it said.

Before forced removals started in the late 90s, there were over 2,000 Bushmen living there.

More from Mother Jones from earlier this year.

UPDATE: Another story from the Washington Post.

Witchcraft in the Modern World

Via Sepia Mutiny, a Washington Post story about accusations of witchcraft in modern day India. The author, Rama Lakshmi, takes the view that such accusations are really about maintaining patriarchy, and should not be thought of as mere “superstition”:

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

“Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms,” said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

“Women from well-to-do homes in the village are never branded witches,” Purwar said. “It is always the socially and economically vulnerable women who are targeted and boycotted.”

Unfortunately, the online fulltext version of Mahasveta Devi’s excellent story Bayen has been removed from the web at the request of the publishers. It is an account of how such witchcraft accusations play out in rural India (and like Zora Neal Hurston’s work, it is ethnographically informed). You can find it in the collection: Five Plays.

A book about witchcraft in South Africa, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy, sees contemporary witchcraft accusations in a very different light. According to this H-Net review by Gary Kynoch (via Anthropologi.info), the book sees witchcraft accusations as an attempt to explain continued suffering even after the demise of the Apartheid state:

Community solidarity has eroded when compared to the unity of the “struggle” years. At the same time, improved opportunities for black South Africans have enabled a significant minority of Sowetans to accumulate material wealth and enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. The less fortunate are often bitter at being left behind and rising inequalities have fuelled community and family conflict in the post-apartheid period. Without “the system” to blame, witchcraft is increasingly considered the source of many of these difficulties. The anxiety engendered by the AIDS crisis has further heightened witchcraft fears.

I personally haven’t read anything Anthropological on witchcraft more recent than Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, but I almost feel inspired to create a course syllabus on witchcraft in the contemporary world. Anyone similarly inspired would definitely want to take a look at this MIT Open Courseware syllabus for James Howe’s course: “Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World.”

Finally, I wanted to add one other witchcraft link: to the excellent Museum of Witchcraft in Iceland. I visited this exhibit in 2000, and enjoyed it tremendously. The witchcraft accusations discussed there were mostly in the seventeenth century, where they seem to have been a European import. The most fun part of visiting the exhibit was watching the Icelandic visitors discussing whose ancestors were accusers and whose were the accused (Iceland is a small country and everyone is related).

Around 130 cases of witchcraft or sorcery are found in court records both from the high court at Þingvellir and in fragments of county court records. Of the approximately 170 persons accused around 10% were women, the rest were males, mostly of the lower classes though some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. It must be remembered in this context that the total population of Iceland at the time was only around fifty thousand.

UPDATE: This story from the Telegraph UK just happened to appear today:

A Sicilian palazzo once used as a headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition has been discovered to contain dozens of pieces of graffiti by “witches” condemned to burn at the stake.

The anguished scribblings and drawings were found on the walls during renovation work on the Palazzo Steri in Palermo, reviving what had been a nightmare for the many women held there to await their fate centuries ago.

One of the damned wrote: “Hot and cold I am / as I be consumed by the fever of malaria / my guts do tremble / and mine heart and spirit grow weak.”